Notes & Comments September 2010
Wrong vs. Rights
On the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy & the nature of Islam.
One of our summertime avocations has been watching the controversy unfold over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” the $100 million, thirteen-story Islamic “community center” avec “prayer space” planned for a spot just around the corner from the crater that once supported the Twin Towers. When we first heard about the plan, early in May, our reaction oscillated between incredulity and outrage: “A mosque? At Ground Zero? The spot where nearly three thousand people were incinerated by Muslim terrorists on 9/11? Surely it’s an unfounded rumor.”
No, it was a report, an accurate report, not a rumor. But the tempest that ensued often seemed to compete with the BP oil-leak in oozing tenebrosity. The turbid waters got a big double stir last month from President Obama. Having deliberately refrained from commenting on the issue for weeks, the President suddenly piped up at an official White House Iftar dinner convened to celebrate Ramadan. The World Trade Center site is “hallowed ground,” said the President. But not so hallowed that it shouldn’t be home to a triumphalist symbol celebrating the ideology in the name of which the attacks took place. It would, several observers pointed out, be akin to allowing the Japanese to erect a shrine to State Shinto next to the remains of the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor. President Obama didn’t see it
As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.
That was the strophe, greeted by friend and foe alike as a ringing endorsement of the project: “Obama Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site,” quoth a front-page headline in The New York Times, which also backed the idea. The New York Post cut to the emotional subtext of the endorsement with its headline: “Allah Right By Me.”
The antistrophe came a few days later, after the White House weathered a storm of indignant criticism:
I was not commenting [no?], and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding. . . . My intention was simply to let people know what I thought. Which was that in this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion.
Very high-minded. But here’s an embarrassing side question: Do we in America treat everybody equally “regardless of race, regardless of religion”—regardless, the President might have added, of sex or ethnic origin? How do you spell “affirmative action”? Let’s say you are an eighteen-year-old white male Protestant applying to Yale. Are you treated equally—i.e., the same, i.e., with no regard to your race or sex or religion—by the admissions office? Isn’t that what “regardless of race,” etc., would mean? Ask the same question about a twenty-two year old applying to law school or a twenty-six year old entering corporate America (or, come to think of it, seeking a job with the New Haven Fire Department): Are those decisions made “regardless of race,” etc., etc.? But we digress. Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald was right that a mark of a “first-rate intelligence” was the ability to hold “two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time” and still function. Maybe.
As we write, various proposals are being put forward to defuse the controversy. New York’s mayor-in-perpetuity, Michael Bloomberg, has strongly backed the project, but New York’s lame-duck governor, David Paterson, has been trying to convince the developers to consider an alternative spot and has even, according to some reports, offered state land on which to build the Muslim community center and house of worship. Perhaps by the time you read this, the issue will have receded from the headlines.
But the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque” has raised some larger issues that will not have receded by September: issues having to do with tolerance, the relation of rights to tolerable behavior, and the compatibility of Islam with liberal democracy. It also “powerfully demonstrates,” as Andrew McCarthy has noted, “the growing divide between the American people and the progressive ruling class.” One side endeavors to defeat the enemies of freedom and tolerance. The other seeks to accommodate them, believing, McCarthy observes, that “they are moving us toward a better, smarter policy that will reduce the threat by making our enemies like us better.”
A few observations. First, it is worth noting that the mastermind of the “Ground Zero Mosque” is a Kuwaiti-born American named Feisal Abdul Rauf—that’s Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the chap who after 9/11 said that American policies were “an accessory” to the terror attacks. (We prefer Jonathan’s Rauch’s formulation: the root cause of terrorism, he wrote, is terrorists.) Rauf refuses to condemn Hamas, the terrorist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood whose 1987 charter announced replacing Israel with an Islamic Palestinian state as one of its ambitions. Nonetheless (or do we mean “accordingly”?), Rauf is beloved of right-thinking (that is, left-leaning) policy makers. He won’t say where the $100 million for his “community center” is coming from. But he loudly proclaims (to Western audiences) that he is “anti-terrorist” and interested in weaving Muslims into mainstream American life. Item: Rauf published a book that, in its English edition, is called What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America. In Malaysia, it is called: A Call to Prayer from the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa [i.e., proselytizing] in the Heart of America Post-9/11. That has a different ring to it, doesn’t it? As we write, Rauf is off on a State-Department-funded junket in the Middle East to . . . well, we aren’t really sure what he is doing. Distributing copies of The Federalist Papers, perhaps.
Some suspect that what Rauf really aims at is, on the contrary, weaving America into the mainstream of Muslim life, i.e., doing what he can to institute Sharia, Islamic law, in the United States. This would be in perfect accord with the “explanatory memorandum” sent by United States–based members of the Muslim Brotherhood to their HQ in Egypt. The Justice Department entered it as evidence in its trial against the Islamic Holy Land Foundation in Dallas in 1991. A sample:
The process of settlement [of Islam in the United States] is a “Civilization-Jihadist” process with all the word means. The Ikhwan [i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood] must understand that all their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within and “sabotaging” their miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all religions.
Imam Rauf has not, as far as we know, commented publicly on this memorandum, but it is significant, we think, that his name for the “Ground Zero Mosque” is the Cordoba Initiative, “Cordoba” being the name of the capital of the Islamic Caliphate in Spain.
Second, what about the “right” that Muslims, like everyone else, have to practice their religion in the United States? Pace President Obama, no credible commentator has disputed that right. We note in passing, however, that such courtesy, such a recognition of the right to worship as one’s conscience dictates, is flagrantly denied in many Muslim countries. Non-Muslims are not even allowed to set foot in holy cities like Mecca and Medina. It is a crime to possess a Bible or any other Christian or Jewish paraphernalia in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim theocracies. There are no Christian churches or Jewish synagogues there: they are forbidden, against the law. Apostasy from Islam anywhere in the Muslim world is a capital crime, punishable by death.
We think it is worth keeping these data points in mind when talking about the “right” to practice the religion of one’s choosing. “Oh, but surely you wouldn’t want us, a good, liberal democratic society, to practice the intolerance that Muslim societies do?” No, we most certainly would not. But that doesn’t mean that our attitude should be one of reflexive capitulation. For one thing, the fact that one has an abstract right to do something does not entail that one has license to do it regardless of other considerations. Rights are embedded in larger social imperatives that direct and qualify how they may be exercised. There are plenty of things you may have a right to do but that it would be wrong to attempt. The philosopher John Searle touched on one aspect of this fact when he noted that
from the proposition that one has a right to do something, it does not follow that it is a right or even a morally permissible thing to do. Any healthy human institution—family, state, university, or ski team—grants its members rights that far exceed the bounds of morally acceptable behavior. There are many reasons for this. One is that the flexibility necessary for free, successful, and creative behavior requires a big gulf between what the institution grants by way of rights and what it has to expect if it is to succeed. The gulf between the rights granted and the performance expected is bridged by the responsibility of the members.
Muslims have a right to build houses of worship in the United States. That does not mean that it is morally permissible for them to build one at Ground Zero. Think again about building a shrine to Japanese militarism at Pearl Harbor. Or consider the proposal by Greg Gutfeld of FoxNews: In order to foster “understanding and tolerance,” he has suggested building a gay bar catering to Islamic homosexuals right next to the Ground Zero Mosque. A spokesman for the mosque project responded, “If you won’t consider the sensibilities of Muslims you’re not going to build dialogue.” Right. And how about considering the sensibilities of Americans who regard building an Islamic community center next to Ground Zero a provocative slap in the face? How is that for building “dialogue”?
The bottom line is this: Islam is a proselytizing, intolerant religion. Its aim is to institute Sharia as the “sole reference point for ... ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community . . . and state.” That is the end. The means are multifarious. Steering commercial aircraft into American skyscrapers is only one tactic. Using and abusing liberal democratic freedoms in order to promulgate an ideology that is neither liberal nor democratic is less ostentatious but may in the end be more effective precisely because it is less dramatic. This is the lasting significance of the case of the Ground Zero Mosque. It represents another step on the march to Islamize the West.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 1, on page 1
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